Authors: Jane Yeadon
Isobel pushed it aside. ‘No, not really. I’d my tea before I came.’
‘Are you from Aberdeen then?’ I asked, thinking with that elegance, height and cloud of black hair she should be on the front cover of a fashion magazine.
Isobel opened her mouth but Rosie was quicker: ‘She is. Hazel, Jo and me too. It’s a bit daft but living in’s the rules.’
‘Maybe the idea is for us to get to know each other. I’m really chuffed I’ve a room to myself. I’m looking forward to settling into it and the food’s fine if you’re hungry.’ Hazel spread a large dollop of butter onto a slice of white bread and bit into it with perfect teeth.
Whilst it was impossible to think of Isobel on frontline duties dealing with unmentionables in a sluice, Hazel, even if she was as elegant, was a bit more substantial and with a jolly manner – and her hair was straight.
‘Yer right, Hazel, an a droppie salt maks the difference.’ Sheila had a placid voice that wrapped around us like a comforting shawl. ‘An if, like me, ye hivna eaten since the 2:30 fae Inverurie, ye fairly tuck in.’ Food bunched her cheeks into downy peaches whilst she patted hair lacquered into a crash helmet. ‘So, eat up quines. It’s a lang time til breakfast.’ Her easy way was enviable.
Jo ate tidily and daintily. Her eyes were dark and watchful. ‘You must have arrived before me but how come you’re last here?’
We explained about our tour of the Home.
‘That solves that mystery,’ she said in her demure way. ‘I heard you when I was in the lift with Sister Cameron. She was going to stop it to investigate. I nearly died at the prospect of that old crate doing anything so efficient, though I did wonder who was making that bloody awful racket.’
‘That would have been the piano – it needs tuning.’ Maisie was quick.
Another table close-by had more recruits at it, their laughter and chat making a friendly noise and echoing ours, though Isobel was more impressed by my empty plate. ‘You must have been hungry.’
Aware she was twice my height and probably half my weight, I tried not to sound defensive. ‘I’d an early start.’
‘Me too,’ said Morag, sounding forlorn. ‘It’s a long, long way from Tain and by comparison, Aberdeen’s enormous. I feel a proper little country mouse.’ She nibbled her finger as if it was a corn ear.
Sighing but unable to compete, Rosie stacked the plates and marched us out of the emptying hall.
‘The maids need their time off.’ Her short legs pumped to keep up with Isobel’s easy lope. ‘Now let’s see if we can cheer you up, Morag. When we go back to the Home we’ll make a cup of tea and have it in your room – it’ll be a bit of company for you.’
Morag looked like my favourite auntie faced with a busload of relatives arriving unannounced and looking for refreshment. ‘No! Please don’t bother. It’s in a right old mess – there wouldn’t be room for you.’ In an agitated way, she squared her box jacket. ‘I’ve loads to do. Look, I’ll be fine.’ Still protesting, she hurried after Rosie.
‘We’ll go to mine then,’ Maisie called after her. ‘Come on, Hazel, Rosie’s about to give us a row. We’re falling behind.’
‘There’s plenty time. Three years in fact,’ said Hazel as we left the hospital. She nodded in the direction of the courts, ‘Anyone for tennis?’ Her laugh was like a drain being cleared.
We dawdled behind, taking in our surroundings. I hadn’t noticed the flowers bordering the side of the hospital. Their heads were turned to catch the last rays of a late sun. The wind still blew but came from a kinder direction. It stirred my hopes. I hadn’t expected the hospital or new faces to feel so familiar so soon. I was sure we were going to be nurses – good nurses, all of us.
‘Come along,’ sang our leader and we lengthened our steps to please her and arrive at the Home together.
‘Well, well now, girls, have you had a nice tea?’ Sister Cameron bobbed out of her office. Her eyes missed nothing. A pandrop crunched.
‘Thank you, it was lovely,’ Isobel lied, not missing a beat.
‘Isn’t that grand, and I’m glad to see you’re making friends too. Now you be making sure you all have an early night now, so you’ll be fresh as fresh tomorrow. By Jove, yes.’ Highland valedictions followed us up the stairs.
Taking the steps two at a time, Maisie passed Rosie. ‘Wee leggies!’ she chuckled. ‘And it’s my room, Rosie, Morag’s not ready for a site visit.’
‘Well I’ll be your first visitor,’ said Rosie, sounding annoyed and running to catch up with her.
‘Isn’t this a lovely evening?’ Maisie sang as she threw open her door. For someone who didn’t appear that organised, her room had a military tidiness.
‘I’ve had plenty time to get sorted.’ She made an apologetic wave at the book shelves stacked with precision, the cosmetic bottles lined up on the dressing table like a firing squad. A bible lay on the bedside table. ‘I’ll have you know I keep immaculate drawers too.’
There was a bonding snigger then Jo suggested, ‘Maybe singing lessons could be more fun.’
As Morag sat primly on a hard chair, Hazel hunkered down to look at the mules peeping out from under the bed.
‘I bet Sister Cameron doesn’t know about the animals. What do you feed them on?’
‘Jane likes them too. Hey, folks, I’m sorry there’s not more room, but I’m sure the floor’s clean enough to sit on.’
‘Hmph!’ sniffed Rosie, plumping down and ruffling her celestial feathers. ‘We should have more chairs but the rooms are that pokey there wouldn’t be space.’
‘I don’t know. A crowd around me makes the place feel more alive. Until Jane arrived, I thought I was stuck on this floor on my own, but now I’m beginning to feel it’s quite cosy here.’
‘Well it’s maybe ok for you – you’re much older, but it’s not like my own wee bedroom at home.’ Two fat tears rolled down Rosie’s cheeks. ‘Och I’m sorry but I’ve never been away from home like this and I just can’t help thinking how much my dog, Mam and Dad will be missing me and I know I don’t live so far away as Morag or even Jane, but – o-o-oh.’ Rosie was lost to grief.
We exchanged glances. We hadn’t expected this and for a moment there was an uncomfortable silence. I wondered if it might set off Morag but she was already on her feet and taking charge.
Earning her place as the first caring angel, if not in heaven, at least in the locality, she said, ‘You were quite right, Rosie. What we need is a nice cup of tea so why don’t you come with me and help me make it. Come on and, look, here’s a tissue.’
We might have one cherub and one kindly angel in our group but that didn’t count for much in the eyes of Miss Jones.
God may well have started as a medical student and with diligence become a doctor, shedding that title on his surgical way to becoming a Mr and eventually jettisoning that for the top job, but Sister Tutors had also taken a difficult route to power. From humble student nurse origins, they qualified to become staff nurses, onwards to ward sisters, then finally back to their original titles but now in charge of nursing destinies.
So, and on God’s behalf, Miss Jones and Mrs Low, a double act running the Preliminary Training School, were about to rule our universe: Mrs Low by saintliness, Miss Jones by quite another method.
Blessed in ignorance, we hung about the classroom, our first day chat enlivening the dull chalk-laden surroundings and making connections with the rest of the students. Isobel, idly manicuring her nails, was already seated whilst Rosie set about organising the rest of us.
Maisie, ignoring the traffic control signals, chose her own spot. ‘This is like school. I’ve always to be near the front so that I can see the blackboard.’ She drummed her fingers on her desk and looked about her. ‘I wonder where the tutors have got to.’
As if on cue, a tall angular figure in bottle green strode into the classroom. ‘Quiet!’
In a missile sort of way, she was impressive.
I hid behind Sheila whilst the rest scuttled to the nearest desk and Isobel put away her nail file.
‘Since you’re new, you might not appreciate how noise carries, but do you realise night staff might be trying to sleep? I could hear you miles away. This class is smaller than usual so I wasn’t expecting it to be twice as noisy.’ Her eyes flashed. ‘I just hope its mind doesn’t match its size. I don’t want a racket like this again. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, Miss – er –’
‘Jones!’ It came like a battle cry.
‘I’m your tutor for anatomy and physiology and by the end of three months, I’ll have hopefully instilled in you all there is to know about the human body so that by the time you go into the wards you should at least know how it works properly. Of course and so that I know I’m doing the job properly and you’ve been listening, there’ll be the weekly tests to check your progress. The exam at the end of P.T.S. will prove both your and my worth.’ Her smile was mirthless as she raised her eyebrows. ‘Now! Has anybody any questions?’
Jo raised her hand. ‘What happens if we fail?’
‘That’s it.’ The tone was final. ‘The first three months are crucial and allow us to see if you really are committed, and don’t forget, we’ll be looking at your practical work as well. There’s no point in time being wasted either for you or for us. Nursing is a profession that isn’t worth doing unless it’s taken seriously.’
Apart from the minute niggling sound of Morag worrying her fingers, you could have heard a pin drop.
‘Of course, there is the option of a repeat P.T.S.,’ the tutor said, moving towards a tall thin cupboard. She smoothed her hands on its handle. ‘But we’d have to think about that very carefully because there’s a lot of new recruits eager to take your place. Right! Let’s get started right away.’ She opened the door. ‘This morning, I want you to meet a colleague of mine.’ In a smooth movement, she pulled out a skeleton hanging from an extending rail so that it dangled before us like a puppet.
‘Meet Skellie,’ she said and stroked, twiddled and twirled its long dead bits.
Maisie screamed and Sheila cried, ‘Ma Gode!’
I had never envisaged a real corpse for educational purposes but Sheila with her ashen face closely resembled one. She slumped over her desk whilst we craned forward to get a better view. This was some lecture.
Miss Jones was unperturbed. ‘Dear, dear, I shudder for the profession if this is what’s likely to happen. So what do you think we should do, girl behind the body please?’
I got up slowly, adjusted Sheila’s scarf, fiddled tentatively with her neck buttons and hopped on one leg by way of diversion.
With a sigh of exasperation, the tutor strode over and laid the patient on the floor with a gentle ease.
‘You put an unconscious patient like so, and her legs like so. We call it the Sims’ position. If she’s put like this, she won’t choke. Just take a note of that will you? I hadn’t expected to use the term so soon but you’ll meet it often enough when you’re in the wards. And remember that the patient’s dignity must be maintained as much as possible. I don’t suppose this patient really wants to be like this.’ The hand movements were quick, sure and practised. Sheila’s suspenders were hardly affected and the ‘A Present From Inverurie’ emblazoned on her knickers surely a figment of the imagination. She looked so comfortable we quite envied her, especially as it was hard not to join in Rosie’s fit of nervous giggles. Laughing might be a health hazard.
Maisie had been despatched for a drink of water or a breath of fresh air, whichever got rid of her quickest, and when she returned still ashen-faced but spectacles glinting with renewed health, she was in time for Sheila’s recovery.
‘Ah gott an affa fright. Naebody expects skeletons tae cam poppin oot like that. Weel, nay in Inverurie ony road.’ She got up slowly, shaking her head as if to check the contents, hair remaining in concrete. ‘Fit next?’
Treating Sheila’s faint as mere detail, Miss Jones surged on. She held up a plastic model of something you might order from the butcher. ‘Everybody listening? Let’s move on shall we? We’ll be finding out about the liver and the heart of course. I know you’ll find them quite fascinating.’ Her teeth, reminiscent of the Home’s yellowing piano keys, flashed as she delved into a drawer, its contents rattling like dice. Then she lifted out a heart, which opened like a joke apple. ‘Marvellous realism here, Nurses, I thoroughly recommend you use it when studying.’ She smoothed over the plastic as if it needed a polish.
‘I might eat it,’ said brave Jo.
To our surprise, Miss Jones laughed, lightening the classroom atmosphere a little. Still, the coffee break came as a relief.
We gathered in an adjoining room to discuss survival prospects.
‘I wouldn’t put it past that wifie to do open heart surgery just for a laugh,’ said Rosie, looking around nervously.
‘Yes, Sheila, you were lucky to come round when you did. You might have woken up with a plastic one,’ Hazel laughed.
Isobel shrugged elegantly. ‘Well, we can’t say it’s been a dull morning. I haven’t felt so alert since putting the kitchen on fire in the nursing home where I used to work.’
‘How did you manage that?’ Fire raising had not occurred to us as a way of entertainment.
‘I found a quickie way to do a poultice by grilling it, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It can set off the fire alarm and ruins the taste of toast.’
One of the girls chuckled and patted her pocket. ‘Talking of fire, I’m dying for a fag. Anyone coming out for a breath of fresh air?’
‘For goodness sake! We haven’t time!’ Rosie tapped on her watch. ‘We don’t want to get on the wrong side of Miss Jones.’
‘Yeah – I’ll come,’ Maisie said. ‘I think my head’ll burst if I don’t and don’t worry, Rosie, we’ll be back for the next execution.’
‘On your own head be it.’
Morag pursed her lips looking like a conscientious secretary. ‘Well I’m going back. I’ve already missed half of the stuff she was saying. She’s going so fast I’m worried I can’t keep up with my notes. If I go back now I’ll get a chance to catch up.’
I said, ‘Notes? Crikey! I was so taken aback by her introductory spiel I never thought to put anything down. Let’s have a shufti at what you’ve written.’
We sped back and were surprised to find that the sun had broken out with Miss Jones replaced by a tutor who sounded genuinely welcoming. ‘Ah! There you are, Nurses, come and take your seats please. Have you had a nice break?’ She had grey curly hair, a motherly way and a smile like the stir mark left on thick custard.